- A minor war of words has emerged between two of my favorite public intellectuals: Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. Late last month Open Culture posted audio of an interview with Chomsky (apparently from 2012). The interviewer asked for Chomsky’s thoughts on Žižek (along with Derrida and Lacan) in light of Chomsky’s views on the use of theory. In part, Chomsky responded:
What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.
- Open Culture published a follow-up post last week with Žižek’s response. The post has the full audio of Žižek’s comments, along with a transcription of the pertinent section:
What is that about, again, the academy and Chomsky and so on? Well with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, my first point is that Chomsky, who always emphasizes how one has to be empirical, accurate, not just some crazy Lacanian speculations and so on… well I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong in his descriptions in his whatever! Let’s look… I remember when he defended this demonstration of Khmer Rouge. And he wrote a couple of texts claiming: No, this is Western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.” And when later he was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the Universe and so on, his defense was quite shocking for me. It was that “No, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know.” But I totally reject this line of reasoning.
- Chomsky certainly isn’t the first person to accuse of Žižek of substanceless sophistry, but to my knowledge he’s the most prominent so far.